Supplement Feature - April 2018
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When Disaster Strikes

Preparation Is Key to Disaster Recovery for Parks

By Rick Dandes

In play areas near where there are wildfires, make sure there is no debris near the play space, Flanigan said, "but I was just in touch with someone in Sonoma County (Calif.) where all the houses in one area were totally destroyed except a playground and I don't know if it was pure luck or if it was far enough away from the flames."

The staff should understand the plan, which includes evacuation. "If there are kids in the area, make sure they are safe and that there is a plan for where they are going to go. If you have a recreation facility that can act as a shelter, you want to have things for the kids to do during or right after the disaster," Flanigan said. "We've worked with the folks at Save the Children. They create child-friendly spaces and they will set up shop where shelters are and bring in play opportunities for kids, so that when the recovery process does begin, the kids have an opportunity to play and that mitigates some of the toxic levels of stress that the kids in those situations are experiencing."

The bottom line is to think about preparation, said both Flanigan and Dolesh. Certain things you can predict, like hurricanes. Tornadoes are always a challenge, because they happen so quickly. Fires are also hard to predict.

"I think the biggest trend that I've seen around the country is the level of preparedness at park and recreation agencies," said Dolesh "They are prepared for these kinds of severe events. Large public agencies oftentimes have to be prepared, but many agencies have gone a step beyond that … they are baking it into their DNA. They are prepared, prepositioned, they're ready, and they know how to respond."

Even if a parks and recreation department doesn't have accreditation as a required element of agency certification, Dolesh said, "I think more and more agencies are getting serious about being prepared for extreme events." (Go to for more information on accreditation.)

Still, he said, it is hard to do training for events that overwhelm peoples' resources and physical capability. "In talking to the folks in Houston, I was struck that with Hurricane Harvey it absolutely overwhelmed people's capabilities. Getting 50 or 60 inches of rain is beyond your level of understanding of what it does. The devastation was extreme. They simply lost parks. They were obliterated."

A Deluge in Baton Rouge

Having an agency preparedness plan helped the Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge (BREC) survive and recover from record flooding. They had just gone through updating their emergency preparedness plan and it was extremely valuable to them when those severe storms hit, said Cheryl Michelet, communications director, BREC.

In August 2016, historic floods devastated parts of south Louisiana after a slow-moving system dumped more than 20 inches of rain in parts of East Baton Rouge and nearby parishes in a three-day span.

In just two days 21.86 inches of rain fell in Livingston, La., according to National Weather Service gauges. That topped the threshold of 20.7 inches for a 1,000-year rainfall event for that period. But other gauges measured more than 31 inches in Watson, La. That staggering total left many climate scientists and meteorologists scratching their heads.

"It started as a really heavy rainstorm on a Friday," Michelet recalled. "By noon of that day you could tell it was going to be really bad. The rain wasn't stopping, and we were already seeing street flooding and the weather folks were getting nervous. That night we posted on social media our first pictures of facilities we checked on. We had folks at the zoo stay overnight until the water went down to make sure the animals were safe. That really resonated with the community."

BREC was asked to open shelters. "Our facilities are really only good for short-term shelters," Michelet said. "We operate five of those, and I got a call that weekend from someone operating one of them saying, 'We have all these kids here, and we don't have anything for them to do.' We were able to bring them coloring books, jump ropes and anything we could grab."

The next day a handful of employees got into work and Michelet started thinking about BREC on the Geaux ("That's our Louisiana way of saying go," she said,) a recreation program. "I called the governor's office, Red Cross, and people I know to get things going and the next day, we had BREC on the Geaux in shelters. It's a mobile recreation unit. We have two. We divided them up and had them visit shelters until those shelters were closed and people could get back home and schools reopened. This made such a difference, because the kids had some healthy activity, something fun to do to take their minds off what was going on, and I think it was just about as important for the adults. You don't want to break down when your kids are right there, so you have some time to think and plan and cry if you need to."

A few days later BREC opened emergency camps. There were still kids who weren't in a shelter, "their houses may or may not have flooded but their parents were working to repair their houses or friend's houses and so we opened camps all around the parish until schools reopened," Michelet said. "The other things that we did were offering space for first responders. We housed thousands of tons of debris because we just couldn't get it to a landfill quick enough … to help speed up that recovery."